Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Royal Holloway, University of London & RAF Museum's online course, From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now when we consider the RAF in a global role, possibly the most contentious event that the RAF did participate in in the Cold War period is the Suez Crisis of 1956. Now Ross, when we consider the Suez Crisis, we might think about it as the last figurative flexing of imperial muscles by France and Britain. Diplomatically, it was something of a disaster.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Operation Musketeer– which was the code name for the operation against the Suez canal– which is the largest operation in terms of Britain’s limited wars in this period. And it is seen as a colonial operation. And it is that last– lack of a better description– hurrah –it’s a realisation that Britain and France cannot act in a way that misaligns itself with, say for example, America. And that’s not to say that there wasn’t cause. The nationalisation of the Suez by Egypt in 1956, increasing communist aid to Egypt in this period, creates concern in Britain.

Skip to 1 minute and 25 seconds Not helped by the fact that in 1954 the Egyptian government abrogated on its treaty with Britain to allow bases in the Suez canal region until 1956. That changes. So that’s the reason why the operation is launched. But of course, the outcome of that is that after seven days, the operation is ended because of pressure from America and the Soviet Union.

Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now in terms of the actual operation, how did the RAF participate in gaining control of the canal?

Skip to 2 minutes and 1 second ROSS MAHONEY: The RAF’s primary role during Operation Musketeer is what we would refer to as a counter-air strategy. Its purpose was to gain air superiority over the canal. So this primarily meant medium-high level operations by aircraft such as the Canberra and the first of the RAF’s V-force and the Vickers Valiant, and conducting precision bombing attacks against the airfields, and also low-level attacks by Canberras and by fighter bombers to take out the Egyptian Air Force. And roughly after about two days or so, the Egyptian Air Force’s force of MiG-15s and Il-28s have been destroyed by the RAF, and also supported by the French Air Force as well.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 seconds But when the assault phase comes in terms of the operation– the amphibious and airborne operation– of course, the RAF is providing support in terms of its air transport fleet, conducting airborne operations over Suez, there are aircraft such as the Valetta supporting in that operation. Suez is a diplomatic disaster essentially for Britain. It essentially brings down the Eden government. How does Britain go about rebuilding those bridges with its major ally– the USA?

Skip to 3 minutes and 11 seconds EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, it doesn’t take very long before cordial relations are reestablished. There are some readings of the history that says that Eisenhower was particularly annoyed at not being briefed about the Anglo-French proposal when France and Britain were working with Israel. So they could tell Israel, but they couldn’t tell their major ally over the re-annexation of the canal. And there’s a reading of the history which suggests that the back door channels through these sort of American officials, if that had been pushed forward and actually Eisenhower had been informed, there might have been a different response. That’s counterfactual, so we can work on that.

Skip to 3 minutes and 57 seconds We’re going to talk in a couple of weeks’ time about Eisenhower’s desire to station nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles in Britain. So very soon after the change of administration in Britain with Eden stepping down, you find Eisenhower engaging with the Conservative Party and Macmillan, starting to say, well, can we actually move this forward, can we reforge the alliance when it comes to the threat that we do consider to be the most obvious, which is the Soviet Union. So if you’re looking at joint programmes, the development of missile technology and cooperation in the field via NATO, it doesn’t take very long for the outrage of Suez to go away.

Skip to 4 minutes and 46 seconds The main problem is that America is trying to encourage its allies, its Western allies after the Second World War, that maintaining empires is against the spirit of why America and the Allies fought the, quote, “good war” in Studs Terkel’s phrase. So therefore actually having imperial powers, acting as an imperial powers, is something that the Americans couldn’t easily publicly tolerate. That said, we move on reasonably rapidly.

Skip to 5 minutes and 23 seconds ROSS MAHONEY: So the Suez Crisis– an interesting case of the RAF as a force being used effectively, but illustrating the problems that diplomacy has on the conduct of campaigns and the problems that it creates for nations.

The Suez Crisis

An error in Egypt.

In this video we explore the questions and comments:

  1. The Suez crisis can be seen as the (last) flexing of French and British imperialism. Diplomatically, it was something of a disaster.

  2. How did the RAF participate in the attempts to retake the Canal?

  3. Suez drove a temporary rift with Eisenhower, and ended Anthony Eden’s political career. How were bridges built after Suez with our allies?

As ever, this is how Ross and I thought about shaping the discussions in the video. You, undoubtedly, will have your own questions for the comments.

The Suez Crisis

This terrible error in British foreign policy cost political careers in this country. This short article will deal with the background to the event.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains one of Britain’s most embarrassing political and international relations failures in peacetime during the twentieth century. ‘Peacetime’ might seem ironic, and this was principally a military engagement, but here it is used to mean outside a major national war. It was akin to the 1938 ‘Munich Crisis’ (appeasement) in its political repercussions, and ended the political career of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. In an era of decolonisation, and two years after France had withdrawn from Indochina, the whole episode smacked of imperialism of the nineteenth century ‘gunboat diplomacy’ age; except the weapons of intimidation were jet bombers and paratroopers.

Initially Israel in October 1956, and then France and Britain the following month, attempted to annex the Suez Canal from Egypt. The 1869 shipping canal allowed cargo to bypass Africa entirely, sailing from the Mediterranean through the canal on to the Red Sea. For British Imperial trade, this was critically important for trade with India, Australia and New Zealand, and South East and East Asia. In July 1956 Egypt’s President Nasser annexed the canal, and nationalised it for his nation. While the Anglo-French owners of the canal company would be offered financial compensation equivalent to market valuation, Egypt’s unilateral action shocked the Commonwealth, and looked to threaten Britain’s strategic interests ‘east of Suez’.

The Anglo-French Operation Musketeer followed on from the Israeli intervention, and it became immediately apparent that this was all part of a planned tripartite scheme. A more cynical reading of the history of this event looks to U.S. President Eisenhower chagrin at not being consulted over this action; and informal communications between the British and the office of U.S. Secretary John Foster Dulles not being passed on to the President. Either way, the whole plan was misconceived with respect to international diplomacy, and without international support, the British and French were forced into a humiliating retreat. A number of commentators believe the Suez crisis signalled the end of Britain as a ‘world power’. Even with atomic weapons – something we will deal with next week – Britain’s status had already declined below that of the US and the USSR sometime before. From a Cold War perspective, Suez gave the Soviets increased propaganda against the West; and the actions of Britain and France in Suez carry unwanted comparisons to Soviet actions in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956). The canal itself was kept in Egyptian hands; and following an Israeli withdrawal in March of 1957, the canal itself opened again. However, Suez represents a humiliating miscalculation of the former European imperial powers, one which sixty years on appears an appalling mistake.

If you wish to read more on this topic, there is a vast literature which is easily accessible:

The US State Department


Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London